In one of my classes, we just finished a unit on journalistic criticism, which ended with students writing their own brief review of an assigned novel. (It was Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Most didn’t hate it, and I’ve read some excellent papers.) One of the things I emphasized to them was that reviewers have a major sociocultural function, which is to stand attentively amid the incredible, endless stream of artistic productions (books, films, clothing, music, whatever), and venture to make judgments about what’s good and what isn’t–about what is worth one’s time and what is not. There is too much stuff out there. Critics help us make decisions.
When it comes to film, Grantland’s Wesley Morris is my favorite American critic, but the New York Times‘ house expert, A.O. Scott, runs a very close second. He often writes moving, meditative reviews of new movies, but I like Scott best when he gets out his hatchet and goes hunting for bad, lucrative art. His treatment of the Adam Sandler/Drew Barrymore excreta Blended is a cruel classic. It opens this way:
Because life is short and I have other things to be upset about, I will not dwell on the offensive aspects of “Blended,” the new Adam Sandler comedy: its retrograde gender politics; its delight in the humiliation of children; its sentimental hypocrisy about male behavior; its quasi-zoological depiction of Africans as servile, dancing, drum-playing simpletons; its … I’m sorry. That’s just what I said I wouldn’t do.
Take caution, the review concludes, because the film “will make your children stupid.”
Hey, have you heard from those billboards? They turned the fan-fiction phenomenon Fifty Shades of Grey into a film. Yesterday Scott got around to it.
*ties napkin around neck, readies knife and fork*
Scott’s work has what Lionel Trilling would call a liberal imagination: it prioritizes and praises films that have a sense of variety, fluidity, complexity, and indeterminacy, and excoriates those with a wooden, simplified, comfortable view of human life. Thus, what makes Fifty Shades such an awful (and it sounds awful) “tale of seduction, submission and commodity fetishism” is primarily its etiolated depiction of human sexuality, which it manages to reduce to kitsch and cliché despite foregrounding BDSM sex, which would seem to offer plenty of opportunities to explore the strangeness of desire.
Jamie Dornan, the actor who plays the handsome bondage-loving plutocrat in the story, “given the job of inspiring lust, fascination and also maybe a tiny, thrilling frisson of fear, succeeds mainly in eliciting pity.” He has, observes Scott in a fantastic slash, “the bland affect of a model, by which I mean a figure made of balsa wood or Lego.” Meanwhile, the female lead character, who is named Anastasia (yeah, I know), “makes no sense. Her behavior has no logic, no pattern, no coherent set of causes or boundaries.” It seems that her main function is to be surprised by wealth, then fucked unconventionally, mostly off-screen of course.
Or not so unconventionally. Scott doesn’t indulge in the cheap snobbery that pegs all popular romantic narratives as melodramatic “women’s stuff,” and indeed you get the sense from the review that he was hoping the movie would be good. After all, it is going to make hundreds of millions of dollars anyway. The film “fall[s] back into traditional gender roles even as it plays with transgressive desires,” and “love . . . functions less as an emotional ideal than as a literary safe word.”
Trilling would approve. Not only is Scott willing to make judgments–no cheap aesthetic pantheism in his game–he makes them according to the only standard narrative art can really be held to: Does the text engage the frightening, glorious intricacy of human lives, or does it reduce them to pasteboard typology, received narrative, and worn-out, ersatz forms of knowledge? Well, which is it?